♥ Peruvian Chef Arnaldo Castillo is telling his own story with ceviche, jamón del país sandwiches, and more at his pop-up La Chingana
— ChefChef Arnaldo Castillo scans the antojitos at the counter of Doraville restaurant Las Americas Cafeteria before deciding on an arepa, empanada, and a cup of coffee. The lunch crowd is trickling in, filling the small cafe and store with the sound of clattering silverware, chatter, and children. The former Minero chef is no stranger to the Colombian spot, which has been an Atlanta institution just off of Buford Highway since 1982. Having grown up down the road, he would often end up there with his family on Sundays after church as a kid, back when it was half the size, there were only four tables, and it was packed out.
Castillo thinks of Las Americas when he considers the legacy he wants for his own restaurant, La Chingana, which is in its early stages as a pop-up highlighting Peruvian food and culture.
“The driving force is to create a creative business that I can one day pass along,” Castillo says of La Chingana. “Just like this place that’s been around for 20 years. Just like my godmother’s restaurant in Piura [Peru] that’s been around for 40 years.”
Castillo’s move to launch his own pop-up comes after years of working in kitchens at various Atlanta restaurants, including Little Trouble and Empire State South, and under the guidance of renowned chefs like Sean Brock and Hugh Acheson. Earlier this year, Castillo closed out four years as the executive chef of Minero at Ponce City Market to focus fully on La Chingana.
Now he’s telling his own story in Atlanta though traditional Peruvian food, particularly from Lima and northern Peru, where he and his family are from.
The pop-up began as a way to provide relief for essential workers during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic last year. Castillo used his first stimulus check to buy cooking supplies and ingredients, teaming up Manuel Lara, sous chef at Serpas True Food, to sell food and donate the funds to undocumented restaurant workers in Atlanta. The next time they did a pop-up together, they cooked for Castillo’s partner’s ICU unit, and he gave it a name: La Chingana.
But when COVID-19 restrictions in Atlanta relaxed, he and Lara had to refocus on their restaurant jobs. It was only a few months later in the fall of 2020 that, during a creative rut, the idea returned to Castillo, and he decided to stage his first solo pop-up — this time with Peruvian food.
“I sold out, and I was like, ‘This is what I want to do. I want to do Peruvian food,’” he says. “I think that just kind of planted a seed even more.”
Other factors seemed to nudge Castillo toward the idea, too. He felt like he had hit a ceiling within restaurants, and knew he would have to put professional growth on pause as the industry recovered from the global health crisis. Opening his own place had always been in the back of his mind, but it seemed especially appealing now that he was considering marriage and starting a family in the future. With his own business, Castillo could start building generational wealth for his children.
“How I grew up is not how I would want my future children to grow up, and I would want to leave something behind for them,” says Castillo, adding that he wanted to take a different approach than his father, who was a chef for restaurants his whole life, but never an owner. “I thought, ‘This is my chance. I have to do it now.’ Because if not, then I just go back to what I was doing.”
So, Castillo left his job in March 2021 and officially launched La Chingana.
Now, on a handful of dates each month, Castillo serves up a multi-course tasting menu featuring a rotating slate of classic Peruvian dishes, like ceviche clásico, jamón del país sandwiches, and causa limeña.
His childhood memories are usually the starting point for his menus, particularly the criollo — which means creole — dishes his family made when he was growing up or visiting Peru. Then Castillo dives deep into research, opening browser tab after browser tab to find where that familiarity meets history. At each course, Castillo explains the components of the dish, highlighting the region where it’s typically served. And while the food draws from the past, it also acknowledges the present, as Castillo incorporates local ingredients, from Atlanta potatoes for papas con ocopa, to peaches for a Georgian spin on alfajores.
Castillo sees his pop-up as an avenue to introduce Peruvian flavors and culture to Atlanta. It also provides space for him to connect with his own Peruvian roots.
“I get to find out more about this culture that frankly I don’t know much about because I immigrated when I was six years old,” he says. Castillo wants La Chingana to be a place where his children can one day connect with their Peruvian roots, too.
That’s Castillo’s next goal: to turn La Chingana into a brick-and-mortar restaurant in the next couple of years, with the hope of becoming “the first Peruvian restaurant in Atlanta to serve fresh, modern, sustainable food.”
For now the La Chingana pop-up will live up to its name, which Castillo tells people means a faceless restaurant, or a place of little importance. “There’s no storefront to it yet — we’re working on that. So for now, it’s just a place that we pop up. We don’t have a face.”